With a sigh, I recalled what had happened afterwards, how Owen was hurt and apologized to me for letting harm come my way, and when he kissed me goodnight. The moments those last words escaped my lips I looked away, seeing their eyes light up in amusement.
“I was right,” Blaire said, smiling. “Am I not always?”
“Oh hush, Blaire,” Yana scolded before turning her words to me. “That does not matter. What is more important is that Mistress Melanie enjoyed it!”
I gaped at her, my face heating. “I did not! I mean—not like that!”
My maids laughed at my outburst and I shook my head. “Come, I wish to spend some time in the Grand library,” I said, in hopes to end their gossip. Neither of them were interested in books, save for Blaire, but reading was a way to quiet her down, too.
But it was not any better. I was lucky to have concentrated on a single page, for the three had been teasing me the entire time. However, I could not admit to them that I enjoyed their gaiety. It had brought my thoughts to a more positive side: that I had a slight chance of winning Owen.
After deciding to finally call in the night, I went to my chamber to sleep. After undressing into my nightgown, I noticed that its hem rested some inch or two above my ankle, when it had previously brushed against my feet. Calling in my maids, they smiled as I showed them.
“Seventeen must be your year,” Ayah said. I raised an eyebrow.
“My year for what?”
Ayah looked over at Yana and Blaire. Neither spoke a word. I rolled my eyes.
“Must I order you to say it then?” I inquired.
“‘Tis nothing but maids’ tales,” Blaire answered. “I for one, do not believe such ludicrous things.” Yana snorted, earning her a glare.
“It only means this is the year of change for you,” Yana said. “But let us get you some new fitted dresses now,” she went on, indicating that Blaire and Ayah take out the clothes in my wardrobe. “We shall be right back.” I nodded in thanks before they turned and left.
I walked over to the standing mirror, running my hands through my loose hair. I did not look any different; my hair was still dark and plain, just as my eyes were, but perhaps I was changed, on the inside. Would it be for the better or for the worse? I could only hope it was for the better. What could possibly be worse than my life now?
“Enjoying the view?” A familiar, haunting voice asked from behind me.
From the edge of the mirror I saw him approach. I quickly turned around, taking a step back, hitting against the mirror. My heart began to hammer painfully in my chest. The Shadow Reaper smiled.
“Of course not,” he went on, “you would rather look like this.” Cold, ghost-like fingers gripped my shoulders, forcing me to look back into the mirror.
I gasped at the refection. The girl I was staring at looked like me —with my eyes, my face, and my height— but she was dressed in a splendid light green gown, glittering in lace. She looked far more beautiful than I could ever be. Behind her was the Shadow Reaper, dressed in his usual dark green but in a king’s attire, not in the cloak he wore now. The girl smiled at me, content with the way she was.
“Wh—who is that?” I whispered, staring at her.
“Why, it is you, Melanie,” the Shadow Reaper said, grinning. ”If you had magic.”
I swallowed hard. The girl there looked happy. Would I be happy, too, with magic?
“And Selenah,” I heard myself asking, “what would she look like without her magic?”
The Shadow Reaper looked delighted by my asking, and instantly, the mirror clouded. It cleared and I could not hold back my shock at the girl before me.
The magic-less Selenah was dressed in a thin, dingy white dress. Is that an infirmary gown? Her once golden hair was now a dull straw color and hung limp on her shoulders. Her face looked pale and the light in her eyes were gone.
I breathed in deeply, unsure of what I was seeing. If anything, she looks ordinary, like me.
At last I came to my senses, stepping out from the Shadow Reaper’s cold grip.
“How are you here?” I asked, my voice trembling. “Selenah’s magic protects this palace.” The Shadow Reaper walked over to the windowsill, glancing outside. His image wavered before he turned to face me.
“Indeed her magic does,” he said, frowning, “and you are fortunate my magic is weak right now. But soon, I will not always have to rely on you.” He held out his hand as he spoke. “Take this chance now, Melanie, and aid me in my efforts.”
I stared at him, jaws clenched. “Do not think I am so easily persuaded,” I hissed, troubled that he sought me for assistance. “I will not turn my back on those that matter. I will not be like Mhellany as you wish me to be.”
The Shadow Reaper pulled his hand back, green eyes lit with fury.
“Believe what you will now, Melanie, but when I am King it will be because you alone have given it to me.” I opened my mouth to speak, but he was gone.
Yana, Blaire and Ayah, came into my chamber just as the Shadow Reaper disappeared.
“Were you...talking to someone, Mistress?” Blaire asked. “We heard...”
I could not meet their gaze. How am I to tell them that the Shadow Reaper was just here? I shook my head.
The three looked at me skeptically, but said nothing. Silk dresses of all colors were draped over their arms. They were quiet as they fitted and adjusted them. I could not bear to have them believe I did not trust them, but I could not bring myself to speak, either.
“Forgive me,” I said in a low voice. They did not question me any further.
The sky was a dark purple, near black, by the time all the dresses were altered. But I could not put myself to sleep knowing the Shadow Reaper —even if he were only a projection— was able to enter the palace grounds. It made me panic, not knowing what to do, or who to tell. I knew there was only one man I could trust with the ability to do something about this.
“Tiran,” I whispered into the still night air as I leaned out the window’s edge. “If only you were here. You would know what to do.” I tilted my head and closed my eyes as a slight breeze passed through.
I stared at him, my eyes blurred with tears. The Dragon, a massive dark shape with curling black wings and a rigid spiked body, stood where a Royal Guard lay at its feet, unmoving.
A laugh echoed through my ears and I whirled around, looking for who would delight in Tiran’s death. My eyes met the cold green eyes of the Shadow Reaper, who stood atop the Dragon’s head.
“I have warned you, Melanie, and let this be a lesson to you.” With that, he and his beast vanished in a cloud of thick black smoke.
Racing over to Tiran, I begged him to live, to forgive me for causing him so much pain. He did not respond to my voice, or my hand that gripped onto his. Blood pooled around him, soaking into my knees, and staining my dress black.
I heard the distant wing-beats of the Dark Mage’s crows, and the lizard-like shadows of several other dragons flying overhead.
We were doomed.
I awoke, screaming out Tiran’s name. When I realized it was only a dream, I laid back down, my eyes staring up at the fabric of my canopy bed. Seconds later, my maids rushed in.
“Are you all right, Mistress?” Yana asked.
I nodded absently, but the image of Tiran brought tears to my eyes.
“What happened? Did you have a nightmare?”
They were oblivious of the Shadow Reaper’s ability to control dreams, and his threat stopped me cold.
I tried to stand up, wanting to know if Tiran was alive. The three protested, but could not stop me. I ate breakfast quickly, and knew my best chance of knowing Tiran’s survival was by going to the King’s Castle. I was foolish for not going to see him or seeking to know of the dragon attacks sooner.
As I made my way to the palace gates, a carriage approached. I stood off, wondering who it could be, a feeling of anticipation tensing my nerves.
When the coachman opened the door, my hope of seeing Tiran plummeted as three noblewomen stepped out. I greeted them as their duchess, and they politely made conversation before going off to meet the others. My maids saw my disappointment and tried to help.
“Perhaps the new nobles know something that we do not?” Ayah suggested. The two nodded with her.
“Do not worry. We will figure out what you need to know, Mistress,” Blaire confirmed. She and Ayah walked after the nobles.
I would have arranged for a carriage to take me to the King’s Castle, but the Guards had told me I was not to leave the Solstice Palace. When I asked by whom, they said it was ordered by the Archduke and her Ladyship.
This time, I obeyed.
I turned back to walk by the Palace woods. Yana followed silently. I slumped against on the trees, my head in my hands, feeling hopeless.
After some time Yana said, “I shall go inform the others where you are,” before leaving.
Looking up, I tried to breathe calmly, staring into the trees. Of course Tiran is alive. The Shadow Reaper was only doing this to scare me. But I could not bring myself to believe it until I knew for sure. Please, Tiran, be safe. I glanced over my shoulder at the sound of light footsteps approaching.
“What news do you have?” I asked, rising to my feet, my voice slightly shaking. My three maids looked nervously at one another.
“The nobles know nothing more of the dragon assaults other than what we already know,” Blaire started slowly. “But they did say that the Archduke left the King’s Castle unattended.”
“Left?” My breathing faltered.
“We do not know for sure, but they say he fled the King’s Castle. No one knows of his whereabouts.”
“No, no, no,” I whispered, turning away from them. Is he going to be killed like Tiran had been in my dream? “This cannot be true,” I whispered to myself. Who will I lose next? I shuddered at the very thought of it. I turned back to them. “And Selenah? What of her?” They shook their heads.
I sighed. I needed magic.
The noon went by quickly, spent by futile swordplay lessons that the Guards were reluctant to offer. But I could not get the thoughts of Tiran’s death and Owen’s disappearance out of my mind. Without knowing for sure if either of the two were alive, I felt miserable.
What if they were dead? I would be the one to blame if they were. Should I have taken the Shadow Reaper’s offer? I scolded myself for thinking such a thing. Their fate could be far worse if Tenebris was under his control.
I had barely any hope left for their survival when a rider entered the gates by mid-evening. The hours had eaten away at my happiness, my heart shadowed by the fear and guilt that had begun to consume it. I did not imagine it to be either Tiran nor Owen, alive and well, as my hopes of such had dwindled as the day passed by.
But I was astounded when I noticed who had come after being notified of a guest; he shined in his armor, a sword glowing at his hip.
“Tiran!” I exclaimed, racing over and throwing my arms around him.
He laughed and lifted me off the ground. It felt so good to be in his arms. Tiran had begun to pull away when I pressed closer to him, fearing someone might over hear what I had to say.
“The Shadow Reaper told me you were dead,” I whispered. I felt Tiran’s embrace tighten, as if telling me he was truly here.
He then set me down and patted my shoulder, giving me a solemn nod that I knew meant we would talk about this later.
Tiran then led me back into the palace, which now glowed under the last rays ofthe sun.